The Cable

Security Brief: Kim Pledges to Halt Testing; Macron Comes to Washington

Public posturing begins ahead of planned summit.

People walk past a television news screen showing a file footage of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, at a railway station in Seoul on April 21, 2018. JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images
People walk past a television news screen showing a file footage of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, at a railway station in Seoul on April 21, 2018. JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images

Denuclearization? With a planned summit meeting between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un increasingly looking like a reality, the two sides are beginning to reveal their negotiating postures ahead of what would be a historic meeting.

Kim grabbed headlines over the weekend with his declaration that he will end nuclear and missile testing — a development that Trump hailed on Sunday as a commitment by the North to “denuclearization.” While White House aides are privately reacting skeptically to the news, the president is claiming it as a major victory.

The reality, of course, is that North Korea is suspending tests because it judges that its missile and weapons technology is sufficiently advanced to hold off American military action. “Under the proven condition of complete nuclear weapons, we no longer need any nuclear tests,” Kim said Saturday.

With the summit approaching the two sides in fact appear to be quite far apart on they key issue of denuclearization, with Trump administration officials saying sanctions relief will be tied to the end of North Korea’s nuclear program. “When the president says that he will not make the mistakes of the past, that means the U.S. will not be making substantial concessions, such as lifting sanctions, until North Korea has substantially dismantled its nuclear programs,” an administration official told the Wall Street Journal over the weekend.

In his meeting with CIA Director Mike Pompeo over Easter weekend, Kim advocated “a phased agreement in which each side would make paired concessions on a timetable that could stretch out for years,” according to the Journal.  

Macron makes the pitch. French President Emmanuel Macron — the “Trump whisperer” — arrives in Washington this week to convince the president not to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal. But it looks like a long shot at this point, especially now that the very hawkish John Bolton is national security advisor.

American and European officials have huddled in recent months to come up with a revision to the deal and have made progress in drafting a set of documents addressing the agreement’s “sunset clauses, its verification rules, and the absence of restrictions on Iranian ballistic missile testing and development, as well as new measures to counter Iran’s ‘malign’ activities in Syria and beyond in the Middle East,” according to the Washington Post.

The Iranian view. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told CBS on Sunday that if the Trump administration pulls out of the nuclear deal his country is ready to resume its nuclear program. “We have put a number of options for ourselves, and those options are ready,” Zarif said, adding that they include “options that would involve resuming at a much greater speed our nuclear activities.”

Welcome to this Monday-morning edition of Security Brief. As always, please send your tips, questions, and comments to elias.groll@foreignpolicy.com.

Bolton gets a deputy. Mira Ricardel, the undersecretary of commerce for export administration, has been tapped as National Security Adviser John Bolton’s deputy, the White House announced on Friday. Ricardel previously worked on the defense transition.

Busy week in Congress. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis will be on Capitol Hill twice this week — on Wednesday and Thursday — to defend the Pentagon’s budget request. On Tuesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee votes on the nomination of current PACOM commander Adm. Harry Harris to serve as the next ambassador to Australia. Defense News has the full rundown on the congressional schedule.

Israeli skepticism on Syria strikes. The American-led strikes on Syria’s chemical weapons facilities are unlikely to deter Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from using such munitions in the future, according to Israeli intelligence assessments. “The statement of ‘Mission Accomplished’ and (the assertion) that Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons has been fatally hit has no basis,” an Israeli intelligence official told reporter Ronen Bergman.

and U.S. agreement. American intelligence assessments are in line with Israeli skepticism over the usefulness of striking Syria’s chemical weapons facilities. According to the New York Times, an American military intelligence report following the strike concluded that the operation degraded Assad’s ability to produce sarin gas but found that “the Syrian president is expected to continue researching and developing chemical weapons for potential future use.”  

Correcting the record. The White House and American military officials conducted a PR blitz after the strikes on Syria — in no small part to counter Russian disinformation — but now the Pentagon has been forced to issue a series of embarrassing corrections to their initial statements. American military officials have now revealed that F-22 fighter jets did in fact participate in a strike and that an older version of the JASSM air launched cruise missile — and not the newer, extended range version — was used in the strike.  

Pompeo gets a committee vote. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is set to vote today on CIA Director Mike Pompeo’s nomination to serve as secretary of state, and things aren’t looking good for the former congressman. If committee members stand by their public pledges, Pompeo won’t be reported favorably to the full Senate, where he faces a razor-thin margin to win approval.

…speaking of which. Pompeo has been frequently described as having served in the Gulf War, but that is not the case, according to a new Splinter News report. “Director Pompeo was in the U.S. Army at the time of the Gulf War – serving until 1991. He was not deployed to that theater,” the CIA confirmed in a statement.  

A message to Russia. American military officials are considering keeping a carrier strike group in the Mediterranean in response to Russian moves in the region, according to Defense News. The proposed change in deployment comes as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has been warning of a new era of great power competition with Russia and China.  

Kabul suicide bombing. An Islamic State suicide bomber struck Kabul on Sunday, killing 57 and wounding more than 100 people. The bomber attacked a voter registration center where citizens were lining up for national identification cards, the AP reports.

The Israeli strike on Syria. When Israeli military jets struck military targets in Syria on April 9 their target was an Iranian Tor anti-aircraft system at the T-4 air base, according to the Wall Street Journal. Israel attacked the site in February after an armed Iranian drone entered Israeli airspace, and Iranian forces at the base subsequently moved to improve its air defenses. Israeli jets struck the missile system before it could be set up, a strike that was coordinated with Washington.  

Drone proliferation. The Trump administration is easing rules for American defense companies to sell armed unmanned aerial vehicles abroad. “The new export rules allow US companies to sell and market armed military drones to US allies and partner under the direct commercial sales process, eliminating the need to go through the State Department via the foreign military sales system,” FlightGlobal reports.

Niger drone base. American military personnel are nearing the completion of a $110 million drone base in a remote area of Niger that will serve as a hub for operations against extremist groups in the region, the New York Times reports. Military operations there “reflect a largely undeclared American military buildup outside the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, often with murky authorities and little public attention, unfolding in remote places like Yemen, Somalia and, increasingly, West Africa,” the paper reports.  

America’s longest war. American Marines are providing air support to Afghan troops in Helmand province as part of the Trump administration’s stepped up efforts there. But operations in the area show “how far expectations have been lowered after more than 16 years of war, with U.S. and Afghan forces seeking to recapture areas that were once under U.S. control,” the Washington Post reports.

The myth of the precision strike. The effort to reclaim Mosul from the Islamic State has exposed the limits of precision strikes in military operations, Maj. Amos Fox writes for the Association of the United States Army. “The Battle of Mosul, a nine-month slog, blending U.S. and coalition precision weapons with Iraqi frontal attacks against an ensconced and determined enemy, precisely leveled the city one building at a time,” Fox writes. The end result of this precision warfare was a city largely destroyed and its inhabitants displaced.

“Perhaps the time has come to accept as fact the precision fallacy, and instead of perpetuating the myth of precision strike, come to grips with the reality of war—war is violent, bound in chance, fraught with friction and, ultimately, a human endeavor,” he adds.  

Dispatch from Raqqa. The United States may have evicted the Islamic State from Raqqa, but the city lies in ruin, leaving its residents without running water or electricity as they attempt to live in a city reduced to rubble. “The destruction of Raqqa and its slow recovery are contributing to a growing sentiment here that the United States wrecked the city but is unwilling to take responsibility for putting it back together,” the Washington Post reports from the city.

An Arab force for Syria. The Trump administration is pushing its Arab allies to contributed troops to build a force that would deploy to Syria and replace American forces there, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Wedding strike. An airstrike by Saudi-led forces in Yemen killed at least 20 people attending a village wedding, Middle East Eye reports.

Hotline ring. North and South Korea reactivated a hotline between the two countries ahead of Friday’s summit meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.  

No more K-Pop. South Korea announced on Monday that it will stop blasting propaganda — including Korean pop music and news reports — across the North Korean border ahead of Friday’s summit meetings between the leaders of North and South Korea.  

Evacuation prep. U.S. officials in South Korea carried out an exercise last week that rehearsed the evacuation of about 100 American citizens from the South, the Wall Street Journal reports. The exercise ferried the Americans from South Korea to an air base in Japan, where the travelled on to Dallas.  

The graphite factory. North Korea has recently attempted to sell nuclear-grade graphite thought to have been manufactured at a suspicious factory near the Chinese border. “Questions over the construction project underscore a key difficulty in evaluating North Korea’s proposals to freeze or give up portions of its nuclear program: North Korea has a long history of concealing illicit weapons activity from foreign eyes,” the Washington Post reports.  

How North Korea got so good at hacking. A fascinating new report from the Wall Street Journal sheds new light on how North Korea was able to develop a highly competent corps of computer hackers while largely cut off from the wider world. North Korea is cultivating elite hackers much like other countries train Olympic athletes, according to defectors and South Korean cyber and intelligence experts,” the paper reports. “Promising students are identified as young as 11 years old and funneled into special schools, where they are taught hacking and how to develop computer viruses.”

F-22/F-35 mash-up. Lockheed Martin will offer Japan a stealth fighter based on a combination of designs from the F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters, Reuters reports. The proposal “would combine the F-22 and F-35 and could be superior to both of them,” a source familiar with the plan told the news wire. Japanese defense officials are eager to acquire a stealth fighter as China modernizes its military, but Tokyo’s attempt to buy the F-22 was scuppered by Washington, which didn’t want it exported.

Medal of Honor. Air Force Technical Sgt. John Chapman will posthumously receive the Medal of Honor for his actions on March 4, 2002, when he fought al Qaeda militants atop an Afghan rooftop after a nighttime mission gone wrong, according to Task and Purpose.

Spy tracking tech. CIA officers aren’t being trailed while operating abroad anymore as foreign spy agencies turn to technology to spot undercover agents, CNN reports. Foreign countries are now relying on closed-circuit television and wireless infrastructure to do the labor-intensive work of tracking spies, Dawn Meyerriecks, deputy director of the CIA’s science and technology division, said over the weekend.

A Pentagon AI center. The Pentagon is developing an artificial intelligence center that would bring together the many AI programs being developed at the Defense Department, Defense News reports.   

Dynetics takes Gremlins. Defense contractor Dynetics advanced to the third stage of a  DARPA program to launch and retrieve drones from the back of a C-130, Flight Global reports. Such technology would likely serve as a key component of swarming drones, which is thought to represent a next step in the use of unmanned aerial vehicles in combat.  

American hypersonics. Lockheed Martin nabbed a $928 million contract to build the Air Force’s first hypersonic cruise missile, Flight Global reports. Developing such a weapon represents a key priority for the Pentagon, as China and Russia are actively researching the technology to field in a missile.  

Sea trials. China’s domestically built aircraft carrier appears to be heading out for sea trials this week after pictures emerged online of the ship leaving port, Reuters reports.  

Chinese naval drones. China is developing unmanned aerial vehicles capable to taking off and landing from the country’s growing fleet of aircraft carriers, Popular Science reports.

The U.S. Navy almost subcontracted to Huawei. The Navy was ready to sign a contract, when they noticed that the contracting company had a relationship with Huawei, a Chinese telecommunications company and smartphone maker banned by the US in 2014, according to a report by DefenseOne. Huawei has close ties to the Chinese government; its founder previously worked for the People’s Liberation Army. That close call and others like it have the U.S. military looking for more institutionalized methods for vetting contractors, with an eye to keeping Beijing-linked companies at arms’ length.

China challenges Australian warships in the South China Sea. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported last week that the Chinese navy challenged three Australian warships traveling through the South China Sea in early April on their way to Vietnam. The confrontation was “‘robust’ but polite.” China claims most of the South China Sea, a claim which a Hague court has ruled is not supported by law. Australia has said it will support freedom of navigation in the region by flying and sailing wherever international law allows.

Taiwan calls Chinese naval drills “intimidation.” Chinese jets launched from its aircraft carrier the Liaoning flew around Taiwan last week as China carried out naval drills in the western Pacific close to Taiwan. China has increased its military drills in the area over the past year amid tense relations between Beijing and Taipei, as Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen has aligned more closely with a pro-independence stance than her predecessor.

Iranian militias. Iranian-backed militias in Syria are turning their attention to American troops in the country. With the Islamic State group nearing defeat and anti-regime rebels losing territory to forces loyal to the Assad regime, military officials and analysts say it is only a matter of time before Iranian-backed groups attack American forces, Borzou Daragahi reports for FP.

Night stalkers in Manhattan. Special Operations forces practicing flying their choppers at extremely low attitudes gave residents of lower Manhattan a scare last week when they rattled apartment windows during an overnight exercise, the Drive reports.  

Do you know Palantir? Palantir has billed itself as the supreme big data analytic platform, but things didn’t quite work out when the company was hired to root out insider threats at banking giant J.P. Morgan. Former secret service agent Peter Cavicchia III was running “special ops” for the bank using Palantir’s tools and in an environment colleagues described as “Wall Street meets Apocalypse Now, with Cavicchia as Colonel Kurtz, ensconced upriver in his office suite eight floors above the rest of the bank’s security team.” When bank executives realized they too were being spied on the corporate marriage quickly crumbled, Bloomberg Businessweek reports.

More or less drunk history. When the Soviet Union in 1973 set off three nuclear blasts in an effort to build a canal connecting two rivers, it set off a scramble within the Pentagon to understand the Russian geoengineering effort but it had another surprising consequence: it “set in motion the first U.S. government research on climate change — a far-reaching project that has continued into this decade,” as FP Executive Editor for News Sharon Weinberger writes in a new excerpt.

The Zumwalt shift. Delays in the development of the Navy’s Advanced Gun System prompted the service to change the primary mission of the stealthy Zumwalt destroyer from a land-attack ship to a ship killer, naval officials told lawmakers last week.  

The F-35 as diplomatic tool. American officials have angrily tried to prevent Turkey from purchasing the S-400 anti-aircraft system from Russia, and now they’re threatening Turkey’s involvement in the F-35 program as retribution for the purchase, FlightGlobal reports.  

Traffic management in space. The Commerce Department will be handed responsibility for tracking satellites and debris in space under a new space traffic management policy announced by Vice President Pence last week, Space News reports.

Subversion. The Chinese Communist Party is establishing cells at university around the world — including in the United States. Typically, party committees at Chinese universities ask affiliated Chinese students and scholars on short-term programs abroad to establish these party branches for the duration of their stint overseas. These party cells are used to insulate Chinese students and scholars from “harmful ideology” in democratic countries, and even, in some cases, to spy on the potential “anti-party thought” of other Chinese students.

Hold your horses. You may have heard reports of gunfire in an upscale neighborhood near a royal palace in Riyadh over the weekend. But Saudi officials quickly announced that it was an civilian drone that had been shot down, and nothing more.

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace. @EliasGroll

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